Trigger warning: This post touches on ongoing challenges living with depression and suicide which may be distressing for some readers. Please stop here if you find such information triggering. You can call the helplines if you need assistance.
It was a weekend, and I had just brought my boys out for a long walk around the reservoir near my home. I was proud of them. We had dinner together, and my wife who had been busy the whole day, was finishing up her work. And then the panic attack hit.
I wasn’t able to sit up straight. I was bent over, panting, scared, looking for a non-existent threat. It felt bad. I took quite a while to recover, and then went to tell my wife, who was perturbed. But nothing more happened, so we thought it was over. But I went to work the next day, and I was on the verge of tears the whole day. My senior mistakenly thought he had been too harsh with me.
I’m no stranger to depression. My first bout was in 2006, and I was discharged in 2009. Medication helped me to function — I appeared well by all standards, except to my wife and my psychiatrist. The suicidal tendencies were strong but manageable.
In the interim period till my stay in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), I experienced dysthymia, a milder but longer form of depression. I gradually lost the ability to feel joy, while struggling with shorter tempers, IBS and other symptoms. I pushed it all aside. I felt like I was able to function. After all, I had to. I had to keep my job to feed my family. I wanted to be able to keep going. I had finally started a new job was which more in line with what I wanted for my career direction, but instead, the panic attack heralded what was to be the darkest phase of my life.
Feeling helpless after work that day, I visited a GP who had my case history from 2006. I remember him turning away from his desk to facing me completely. He wanted me to take leave from work, just a month into my new job. After 15 minutes of persuasion, I reluctantly agreed. My senior and supervisor were both very supportive. Nothing helped though. After trying multiple ways such as visiting a cat café, or long walks in the Botanic Gardens to clear the overwhelming darkness that was clouding my mind which did nothing, I made plans to end it all.
On the verge of taking that action, a phone call to IMH’s Mental Health Helpline (6389 2222) was my last resort. I still don’t know why I called. Or why I promised to listen to whoever spoke to me. Or why I heard her out, and took the bus alone (my wife was taking care of the boys), from my home in Jurong all the way to Buangkok. I don’t know how I crossed the road after missing a stop, or why I eventually shambled into the A&E, despite having to ask for directions. By the time a couple of my friends arrived, I had to be warded for my own safety.
I am still in treatment. Stress can make me break down easily. I sometimes struggle to eat, or to get out of bed. There are days which seem longer and darker than others, and I still struggle to identify how happiness feels. The journey of recovery has been a long and difficult one.
One of the first lessons I had to learn is that recovery isn’t simply a breakpoint, a marked time where things change such that treatment is no longer needed. For mental health, recovery starts from the point where someone admits that they need help, and may never fully end. Functioning in the new normal, living with the condition, is an entire journey of self-exploration, adaptation and strength in ways that are not easily described. This is different from having a broken arm or leg, or a flu.
But as I told my therapist near the start of my psychotherapy, I have to live on. I don’t want to hurt those around me.
With a broken bone or the flu, you get to expect that there will be a point where you’re totally free from whatever physical ailment you’re experiencing. My mental struggle to put my past to rest so that I can move on have been among some of the toughest fights I’ve had to fight. Mental health conditions can sometimes last for years. Every day I wake, I think thoughts and emotions that are not helpful or productive. But I work with them. My medicine helps to make daily life manageable. My therapy sessions teach me coping skills and ways of thinking that I have never considered to manage the destructive thoughts and emotions. In many ways, it feels like I’m a child learning new things. It can get frustrating, especially on days that I can’t even get out of bed. It feels like I’m not trying hard enough, even as I’m actually pushing too hard.
But as I told my therapist near the start of my psychotherapy, I have to live on. I don’t want to hurt those around me. When I see my wife, and my kids, and their belief in me, as much as I feel unworthy of their hope and love, I know I have to keep trying. Others may not be as lucky to even have family, or loved ones to aid in their struggle. This means I need to find a way to live being at peace with the war that is going on inside me.
So recovery for me, is indeed a choice. I choose not to ignore my pain, which has driven me to the edge. I chose to seek help, and I choose to try and fight to recover.
If you are facing a mental health crisis and require urgent help, please call:
- IMH (24-hour Helpline) – Tel: 6389 2222
- SOS (24-hour Hotline) – Tel: 1-767
Read more from Mak
- The Painful Character: A comic born out of brokenness – the launch of Depressed Dave, comic book on his struggles with depression
- He Didn’t Say Goodbye – his struggle to overcome depression after losing a friend to mental illness.
The contributor is a Mental Health Advocate.